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23 April 2018

Sport’s millennial bug: the race for a younger audience

Written by: Craig Woodhouse, Director at Edelman

Consumer Trends & Insight, Digital Trends, Innovation

Image source: Getty 

As the world’s global sporting federations – from the International Olympic Committee to the International Jump Rope Union – used their annual SportAccord conference to discuss the power of marketing and sponsorship, Edelman’s Craig Woodhouse heard a very common concern: how to get digitally native youngsters hooked.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, is addressing the great and good of world sport amid the splendour of the Royal Thai Navy’s HQ in Bangkok. But on his one chance of the year to deliver a key message, it isn’t about incredible human endeavour, the importance of tackling drug cheats, or even a self-congratulatory pat on the back for a successful Winter Olympics. It’s about digital marketing strategy.

“We have to go where the people are,” he tells more than 2,000 attendees, with the Prime Minister of Thailand in attendance. “And the people are leading digital lives.”

He doesn’t stop there. Some 77% of social media users are under 35, he tells the audience, and sport needs to engage young people around the world.

So it was that this year’s SportAccord came to be dominated by discussions about picking the right influencers, engaging in e-sports, the merits of user-generated content – and whether millennials have short attention spans or just can’t stand rubbish content.

Driving this obsession is falling TV audience numbers for sporting events, and with them, the falling value of TV rights. While TV is definitely not dead – and particularly not for live sport – the fact that even the Super Bowl audience shrank this year and the Premier League’s rights values were down has the sports world spooked and looking for a new audience.

That means looking online, and different sports set out their different approaches.

For Formula 1 and World Sailing, e-sports are at the centre of their new offering. Spain’s top flight soccer league La Liga, also along with F1, are looking to engage new fans through fantasy games which have proven so popular for the likes of the NFL and English football. La Liga also has an aggressive social media platform strategy, including using Telegram to access the football-mad under-30s among Iran’s 70 million-strong population.

The International Hockey Federation wants to put data at the heart of its social media offering, having found its fans love stats almost as much as cricket supporters. And there was admiration for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who have invested in a League of Legends team to help penetrate the Asian market.

One of the most interesting sessions of the week was about the power of influencer marketing – indeed, this informed many of the discussions which followed. While there was widespread agreement that authenticity is key, opinions differed over whether influencers should be paid – or whether providing them with quality content is sufficient. And there was an acknowledgment from International Surfing Association President Fernando Aguerre that the need to have others telling your story to be successful is nothing new. Or as he put it: “When Jesus discovered he was going to die he went out and found 12 influencers – and that went pretty well.”

As sports look to engage millennials, what they say and stand for is as important as how they say it. Edelman was at SportAccord to speak on a panel about socially responsible marketing, stressing the need for leaders to drive change and show they are a force for good in the world. Not only do fans increasingly expect it, but it also provides opportunities to reach new audiences and find exciting new ways to partner with brands.

As Thomas Bach told the audience, it is the Olympic motto to make the world a better place through sport. Building partnerships is key to delivering this mission in an increasingly polarised world.

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